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NAPLES — Thousands of early voters waited in long lines Saturday across Southwest Florida for their last chance to go to the polls early before Election Day.
Even before the polls reopen Tuesday, 54 percent of Collier County voters, or 97,741 out of 180,560 voters, already have cast an early vote or have mailed in an absentee ballot. As of 9 p.m. Saturday in Lee County, 34 percent of voters, or 133,110 out of 388,427 registered voters, had voted early or by mailing in an absentee ballot.
"I'm just really tickled about these numbers," Collier's Deputy Supervisor of Elections Tim Durham said Saturday. "That makes Election Day go a lot smoother."
Wait times to vote early were much longer Saturday in Lee County than in Collier County. Lee County Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington blamed a longer ballot and fewer early voting places than in Collier.
"It's moving, but it's been slow," she said. "But it's been steady."
Early voters — from mothers feeding babies in their arms to seniors leaning on walkers — wended through crowded libraries or sweated it out in the hot sun.
The early voting turnout in Collier County beat 2008, when about 44 percent of Collier voters cast early or absentee ballots. Collier has more than 20,000 fewer registered voters in 2012 than in 2008.
Collier recorded 52,296 early votes and has received more than 45,445 absentee ballots so far, with absentee ballots accepted until 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Lee County's early voting turnout is off from 2008, when 46 percent of Lee voters voted early or by absentee. As of 9 p.m. Saturday, 51,818 early votes and 81,292 absentee ballots had been cast in Lee County. Final numbers weren't available late Saturday with two sites still open at 9:30 p.m. for voters who were in line at 7 p.m.
Lee has 70,000 more registered voters in 2012 than it did in 2008, when early voting ran for 14 days in Lee County and for 12 days in Collier County instead of this year's eight days. In 2008, early voting polls were open for eight hours each day instead of 12 hours each day in 2012.
Durham said the early voting spot at the headquarters library on Orange Blossom Drive was the third busiest in the state, with almost 20,000 people voting there since early voting began on Saturday, Oct. 27.
The Collier County elections supervisor's website estimated wait times at early voting places at less than 20 minutes to more than an hour Saturday. Bonita Springs' only early voting spot was averaging waits of 2 1/2 hours, poll workers said.
A handful of voters gave up on the hour-long wait at the Golden Gate library, where more than 100 people stood in a line that snaked past the fiction section and computer room on the way to voting equipment set up in the reference room.
"It's ridiculous when it's like this," said disabled veteran Michael Apa, 80, of East Naples, as he left the library after getting a look at the line.
Word of similar scenes across Florida prompted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to urge Gov. Rick Scott to extend early voting into today. The League of Women Voters made a similar request earlier in the week; Scott didn't do so.
Public school teacher Susan Prock, 61, of Estero, said more days and more places for early voting would be a good idea, especially for working people.
"I want to vote, but I'm not sure I can stand here forever," Prock said from the back of the line that trailed down an unshaded sidewalk and around the corner of a shopping center that houses a Lee County Supervisor of Elections office.
Standing next to her, engineer Henry Sikorski, 78, of Bonita Springs, had made two trips to the early voting spot in the past week but was turned off by even longer lines.
"I'm going to find out who is on the Elections Commission and not vote for them," Sikorski said.
One woman fainted in line in Bonita Springs early Saturday afternoon, and poll workers were urging voters with health issues to come to the front of the line. Others waited in their place under umbrellas or sat in beach chairs they had brought with them.
Candidate yard signs crowded every grassy area in the overflowing parking lot of the shopping center, where businesses were turning early voting into a marketing opportunity.
Jordan's Shutters had its door open for voters to come in and grab a bag of popcorn, a pastry or a minibag of M&Ms. A few doors down, Action One computer service had a cooler of bottled water outside its door with a sign inviting voters to use their rest rooms.
"It's worked good for me," said shutter company owner Don Jordan, 50, who took the week off so he could focus on handing out what he guesses has been a couple thousand bags of popcorn.
Many voters said early voting was working for them despite the wait — even if it wasn't so great for Stephanie Garcia's two daughters, ages 10 and 7, and son, 4.
"It's worth it," said Garcia, 26, a medical office appointment scheduler, who voted in Golden Gate. "It gets my kids out of the house."
Landscape architect David Cosslett, 30, of North Naples, said early voting meant he doesn't have to risk not being able to break away from work Tuesday to stand in line at the polls.
"We sure wanted to be sure we got our vote in," said Cosslett, who spent an hour in line at the Orange Blossom library with his wife, Beth, 30, a teacher, and was finished voting about noon. "Time to watch some football."